Saturday, January 15, 2022

"The Ocean Breathes Salty" at the 2022 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival

Hatchet Cove, Friendship, ME
The Ocean Breathes Salty
was originally a writing exercise for a class, but I was happy enough with the result to submit that for my entry into the 2022 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival.

I was unable to attend the first read-through on Wednesday, and so attended the second rehearsal on Thursday. The company inquired about backstory. I asked if they had any ideas about that themselves and they, the four-person cast, director and stage manager, said they had plenty, ideas that had come up the night before in my absence.

This was fine with me, more than fine. Any “backstory” I was to provide at that moment would have been stuff I was making up off the top of my head. I asked them to tell me what they had thought of, and objected to little, if anything. They had read the script, and were inspired by what was there to create more or less psychologically correct histories.

In his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, playwright David Mamet opines that “backstory” is pointless bullshit, that there are only words on a page. Play the words and the play either works or it doesn’t, bringing your own ideas to the work is irrelevant. That is one very simple way to look at it.

Human beings think backward and forward in time and space, and just as the words I say (or write) are informed in the moment by what have experienced and what I expect, so, too, an actor wants to know what they have experienced and what they expect in order to speak a line or perform an act. It is, as they say, in our nature.

And this is a ten-minute play. How to interpret a line, any line, requires a little imagination. You could just speak the words on the page but it might not be very interesting. Like, you know, any of Mamet’s recent work.

The original title of this short play was brief and alliterative, but I didn’t feel it captured the “gothic romance” which I believe best describes the story. For this first production, I changed it to the title of a song by Modest Mouse, the lyrics of which are a direct address to one beloved who has died.

It wasn’t even a song I had been familiar with, I just Googled songs about death, and this one resonated with me, the mood and also the title, as this play takes place in a town on the coast of Maine. It's a bit of a mystery (as which of my plays are not) or as I have called it, a gothic romance. Director Kelsey Jones promises to make it weird, and I am here for it.

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Denzel Washington & Frances McDormand
(The Tragedy of Macbeth, 2021)
Includes spoilers for Joel Coen’s 2021 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”


Recently, I have started attending the movies alone. This is something I have never liked to do, and I can even now count the times I have done so on one hand. But it’s becoming a guilty pleasure, made more accessible as my children are away or otherwise occupied, to claim this time for myself.

My favorite movie house is only a five minute drive from my house, Monday nights are five bucks, I get a beer and popcorn (popcorn all to myself, how decadent is that) and settle in. Things being how they are, I often have a row to myself. I feel like a king.

And speaking of kings (how’s that for a segue?) here’s the thing about Shakespeare. Like hearing the cover version of a classic standard, once you know a particular piece – Macbeth, for example – you no longer need to bend your ear to the language. You just know it, you’ve memorized it as you have a familiar tune or lyric. It opens up your senses to different productions, their interpretations, the design, performance, and so on, and you can even be surprised by words you hadn’t given much thought to before.

However, I am also at a stage in my experience with Shakespeare where I do not need to see certain plays ever again. And I won’t. While I will always seek out a new production of Hamlet, I never need to see As You Like It ever again, nor The Tempest, and certainly not Macbeth.

Michael Fassbender
(Macbeth, 2015)
I can find something interesting in even the very worst Hamlet (and I have seen the very worst Hamlet) but a bad Macbeth is tedious.

Enough folks warned me that the 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard was bloated, with an emphasis on visuals and a deep disinterest in the actual language that I didn’t bother to watch it. What’s the point?

However, I rushed to my local move house to see The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Coen brother Joel Coen without consulting the reviews, because I had faith in the director (who chose to use the full title, as I like to do for my productions) and in its star, Denzel Washington.

Some notable and striking design choices for this adaptation include, most obviously, the use of black and white. Also, it is filmed in 4:3 ratio, like you would for an obsolete television set.

These elements, and especially an entirely non-natural setting, are evocative of the German expressionist filmmakers. I’m thinking specifically of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which, like, Macbeth, is a tale of madness and murder. The effect of the artificial sets and narrow field of vision is claustrophobic.

Conrad Veidt & Lil Dagover
(The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920)
Coen creates symbolic images using light and shadow, tall stone portals with pointed peaks take the shape of knives; in fact, the “air-drawn dagger” Macbeth sees is not some “fatal vision” but the door handle at the end of a long corridor, catching the light.

This moment is also significant, as Washington strides the length of the corridor, fretting this floating dagger and the murder he is about to commit, the camera cuts from the door to his face to his feet to his hand, the whole time reciting nearly the entire speech, clearly, and uncut.

So many of the important speeches of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are performed in their entirety, or nearly so. The Coen brothers have always been brilliant with language in their films, but Joel Coen does not here presume his text is superior to that of Shakespeare.

Light and shadow, black and white, the use of confined space, Coen uses his actors and their surroundings like shadow puppets, creating striking images as they move across the screen.

Much well-deserved attention has been given to actor Kathryn Hunter, who plays the wyrd sisters, her preternatural movement and voice being central to the movie’s unsettling sense of the bizarre.

But Coen puts his own unique stamp on this often-interpreted play through his use of the Thane of Ross (Alex Hassell) a tertiary character who in this version, assuming lines from other otherwise unnamed characters, becomes a fly in the pointment. His actions are inscrutable and his motives unclear until the last moment of screentime.

Alex Hassell as Thane of Ross
(The Tragedy of Macbeth, 2021)
Is this Ross also a witch? His interaction with Hunter, thinly disguised as an “old man” suggests he may have been possessed, or a witch in the form of an ally familiar to Macbeth. As he mounts the stairs towards an emotionally weakened Lady Macbeth, he holds his arms crooked in such a manner that his cloak and figure suggest that of a bird – like one of the ravens which the Weird Sisters employ at several key moments in the film.

Finally, we see him spiriting away Fleance, the son of Banquo, fulfilling the sisters’ prophecy. Those familiar with the story might think this to be an unnecessary conclusion, but what of those who are not? Coming to Macbeth with no prior knowledge (as no doubt thousands of viewers will) the coronation of the callow Malcolm may seem anti-climactic. The succession of Banquo’s children is central to the plot, but the audience never sees it happen.

Shakespeare’s audience did see it happen, as they knew that their recently crowned King James was a descendant of the historic Banquo, and so do contemporary fans of the play. Coen makes Banquo’s triumph clear and evident, for all to appreciate. The charm's wound up!

"The Tragedy of Macbeth" is now streaming on Apple TV.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Secret New Year’s Getaway (part two)

Cast of a frieze from the Susan Lawrence Dana
House, Springfield, IL
(Frank Lloyd Wright, 1902-04)
*with wedding rings from the Wireless Catalog
inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, 1999
Secret New Year's Getaway (part one)

Saturday, January 1, 2022

More than the Met, the MoMA (yes, I will call it The MoMA) felt foolishly overcrowded. They check for vaccination, and they have timed entrances – but they don’t check the timed entrances. People just kept flowing into the MoMA on New Year’s Day. We headed straight up to the fifth floor, assuming the first would be most packed, thinning out as the floors went up. This was not the case.

The fifth floor holds the oldest collection, all those pieces that were most modern when the museum opened in the late 1920s, those works you probably saw featured on the cover of your high school fiction textbook. Manet, Monet, Matisse, Modigliani, Mondrian, and lots and lots of Picasso.

One of my favorite pieces (this time around, anyway) was a video installation titled MINUCODE by Marta Minujín (1968). A social experiment, she filmed different social groups over several evenings in the same cocktail party setting. Edited segments are projected onto four walls, larger than life.

As my wife observed, it is one thing to see still images of people from the past, styled and dressed for a casual evening out. It is another to see them in motion, as real, animated citizens.

I was alarmed by their extremely close proximity, breathing freely onto each other, onto each other’s drinks. One man takes off his glasses and vigorously rubs his eyes. One woman pinches something from her nostrils. And all the shaking of hands.

MINUCODE
(Marta Minujín, 1968)
We had supper in the museum restaurant, and I made up for the previous night’s veganrepast by having a dish of raw beef. 

Then we headed to the theater!

Why, when it seems all other Broadway theaters have closed, once, twice, a few times, due to Covid, did I hear nothing about The Lehman Trilogy? One possible answer, as my spouse pointed out, was that there are only three actors. I did not know this. Because I knew very little. Having decided to see the show I also decided to learn nothing about it, to be entirely surprised. Sometimes I do that.

I knew it was about the history of Lehman Brothers, one of the major financial centers that went bust during the Housing Market Collapse of 2008. And I knew it featured Simon Russell Beale. As a younger man, Beale was a member of the RSC in Stratford. In 1990, when our school attended a week of workshops and master classes there, he was one of those actors who led the workshops. We also saw him play the King of Navarre in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Konstantin in The Seagull.

I did not know The Lehman Trilogy was directed by Sam Mendes, and that the other two actors were Adam Godley, who has been a supporting actor in countless TV shows and films (he plays Walter White's successful college friend in Breaking Bad) and Adrian Lester, an outstanding classiclal performer, a legend in the UK and who by rights should be headlining Hollywood films. Checking my program to see if there were any understudies, and finding there weren’t, I settled in for something fantastic.

But oh! The difference in the air, in the theater, just since October, when the boy and I saw Hadestown. Yes, we all had to show proof of vaccination then, too, and wear our masks throughout. But the concessionaire at the Nederlander Theatre was closed. And when the wife lowered her mask and took a sip from her water bottle, it was just as an usher was coming through to make a general announcement to the crowd, taking a moment to to first admonish Toni that there is to be no food or drink consumed in the theater.

Godley, Beale & Lester
We were all told that if we were to lower our masks, at all, it must be outside. Her announcement garnered applause, and it was good to know the crowd approved.

But my goodness. Think about all those people you know who are always making a stink about folks eating or drinking in the theater. Well, here we are and you got what you fucking wanted.

Presented in three acts with two intermissions, The Lehman Trilogy absolutely sails by. The performances were transportative. The design elements, from the rotating glass-walled office set, the gentlemen’s long, black frock coats, the video projections, live musical accompaniment and recorded sound, were perfection. And Mendes, above all, masterfully directed the circus.

And yet. As my mentor Bill Condee said, we go to the theater today for the same reason that the ancient Greeks did: we go to see the gods.

To see the gods. Not to see the assholes.

While I enjoyed the performance from beginning to end, and especially the first two acts, I was disappointed by how the story resolves itself, which leads one to question the entire endeavor.

Before the pandemic, the last great economic upheaval was the financial crisis of 2008, caused in large part by and resulting in the demise of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., and corproations like it. This play is the story of that company, who the actual Lehman Brothers were, and how their company evolved from a single textile store in Montgomery, Alabama to a mammoth financial institution whose grotesque acquisition of capital led to a near-cratering of the world economy.

Perhaps we are to marvel at how such destruction can be generated from mild and modest beginnings. Henry, Mayer and Emmanuel Lehman were, after all, simply pursuing the American Dream. That they were active participants in the slave trade is depicted as something that happened to them, rather than something they in which they were complicit. The fact that Mayer Lehman himself held no fewer than seven people enslaved is not even mentioned in this play.

There may be some poignancy in viewing their saga, and that of their children and grandchildren (grandchild, really, Bobby Lehman, the last family member to sit on the board until his death in 1969) if the final third were not a confusing rush to explain what happened during the final forty years of management. Knowing what came before should illuminate how it ultimately concluded. I do not believe that it does.

The final image is that of three 19th century immigrant brothers preparing to recite the Kaddish for the collapse of a financial empire they had begun. Mourning the demise of something that was born in corruption does not seem appropriate.

It’s 2022. Must we continue to use the stage to consecrate the acts of venal men?

Friday, January 7, 2022

Secret New Year's Getaway (part one)


It all started early this November when my wife read something somewhere about the play The Lehman Trilogy, written by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power. She has been researching the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial collapse of the late aughts, and thought this was a play we should see. I spotted an ad in the Times that said it closes January 2 and we both decided that’s that. There were no weekends we could pop off to New York to see a play between then and when we were planning to visit London in mid-December. 

“What if we went for New Year’s Eve?” she suggested. Now that was an idea. New Year’s is our special night, we met on a New Year's Eve and have spent every NYE together since. Even if we have nothing special planned, it is special for us. We’d never spent one in New York City, though, and why not? After all of this not going anywhere. We’d come home from England after seeing my brother and his family, and a few days later jet off to New York, all on our own.

We got tickets; to a show, on a plane, she found a hotel. And then Omicron arrived.

Library Walk in the rain.
England was a non-starter, and most of those arrangements we were not penalized for. That was before our son contracted a pre-Christmas Covid. But what about New York? Would it be foolish to go? Maybe our fate would be decided for us, but our flight was not canceled, and this show, which used only three actors, had not yet been suspended due to an outbreak.

Surely we had a responsibility to go to the city and spend ridiculous amounts of money. Not because we “deserved it” or anything as immature as that. Just because … well … I have no idea. Because we’d made plans. Because we wanted to. Because no one stopped us. Still, we decided not to tell anyone until it was over, and we were home safe and well. And so we are.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Though we have visited New York several times with the children, and other times on our own, my wife and I had not visited the city together alone for almost twenty years. In May 2002 we visited, specifically to see Urinetown, but also just to go. Since she moved to Cleveland in 1995 we’d always made a trip more or less once a year. We drove that year, and it was the first time she had taken in the skyline without the Twin Towers. She's the one of us who lived in NYC, in the late 80s and early 90s, but hadn't been back now for over five years.

This weekend, she’d booked us a room at the Library Hotel, up the street from the main public library, and it is a hoot. Our room, 500.001, was of course the Mathematics room (look it up, as they say) and there were shelves stacked with a variety of books on the subject.

For your information, room 800.001 is the Erotic Fiction room but I imagine that is a suite.

Having several hours to kill before an 8 PM dinner reservation on the LES, we walked forty blocks up to the Met. This is where things began to feel weird. We would go maskless when space permitted, but Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, these streets are crowded with tourists (of whom, yes, we were two) probably biding their time before heading to Times Square by midnight. When we were among the throng, we would put the masks back on.

So strange, people queuing along the avenue to enter the Lego Store, the Nike NYC, two at a time. They were waiting in line to shop. For Legos.

Before Yesterday We Could Fly
Desiring a light lunch before we reached the Met, we dunked into Viand, an old school New York diner. At first the wife did not wish to enter, thinking it would be too close, but there were few occupied tables and we were very pleased with the uncomplicated surroundings. We knew we would get fancy later.

It reminded me of my several visits before she moved to Cleveland, this cozy, claustrophobic basic joint. In those days everyone would be smoking. We’d be smoking, too.

At the Met we got our bearings as we usually do, at the Temple of Dendur, before seeking new sights. The heart of the museum includes a new Afrofuturist exhibit, and I wanted to see that.

In the mid 19th century, the African American community Seneca Village was seized by the city to make way for the proposed Central Park, it’s citizens forced to relocate. The Met acknowledges those who previously occupied land (these people, and the Lenape before them) where the museum now rests in the exhibit Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room. It is a collection of wild and colorful beaded items, photographs, prints, ceramics, a video installation.

A narrow walkway surrounds the collection, another opportunity to be a little too close to others. I found it jarringly symbolic when a gang of young, white dopes entered the space, spreading out to occupy as much of the available room as possible. One of them, either their leader or that guy who thinks he is, mocking announced, “This is not art.”

Where do these people come from, and why are they in an art museum on New Year’s Eve?

Back at the hotel we dressed all fancy, and headed to the Lower East Side for dinner at Ladybird. So queer as in strange, a block or so from where our son and I spent an extended weekend only a couple months before. Like, we spent most of our time downtown for four days and it was odd to just pop back in for a few hours. Because this was such an LES joint, tiny and close, appointed with mirrors and murals to provide the illusion of space.

The wife is vegetarian, and this place is a highly esteemed vegan restaurant, serving a five-course, prix fixe meal for the holiday. I chose an odd cocktail to begin, they offered something called a Smoking Lady Bishop. A traditional Smoking Bishop is referenced in A Christmas Carol, and for several years I concocted the Victorian era beverage for the staff holiday party. I’ve never had anyone serve one to me before.

My beautiful date.
The regular is basically a wine mulled with citrus, cloves and sugar. In this case, spices included cardamom, peppercorn, cinnamon and allspice. It was rich and warm and I took my time with it. We took our time with everything.

One of the standouts of the meal were the vegan “escargot” which were morels that had been steeped in seaweed brine, providing the rich, musky flavor you would expect from snails.

Our dinner reservation included an invitation to a masquerade ball, somewhere close by, but having spent several hours maskless in an intimate setting with dozens of other diners, we decided not to press our luck, and headed instead to the rooftop bar at our hotel.

We arrived shortly before midnight, had a glass of Veuve Clicquot, and toasted the new year the same way we had met seconds before January 1, 1990 – out of doors, in the cold, with a light rain.

To be continued.